Prison Is No Relief From Child Support for Many Parents

The Obama administration recommends changes that experts say will increase the amount that gets to the children of incarcerated parents.
(Photo: Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
Oct 24, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

The financial challenges that incarceration imposes aren’t often considered as one of the many downsides of doing time, but court fees, fines, and surcharges that pile up with a criminal conviction often linger long after a person serves time in prison. That just adds to the host of challenges faced by former prisoners looking to rebuild their lives. Jobs in prison—for those who can get one—pay an average of $4.75 per day, barely making a dent in the ability to pay those debts. For incarcerated parents, child support payments also add to that tab.

“While the average person might owe $20,000 [in child support] after prison, I’ve met folks who owe as much as $70,000 to $100,000,” said Jacquelyn Boggess, director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, a policy think tank focused on the needs of low-income parents.

Now, the Obama administration is introducing regulatory changes that would require states to lower the amount of child support paid while a parent is incarcerated. More than half the people in state and federal prisons have one or more children, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. While most states allow imprisoned parents to apply for reduced payments, 14 do not and classify incarceration as a form of “voluntary unemployment,” says the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For the non-incarcerated, custodial parents—most of whom are mothers—child support payments can be a vital lifeline. While incarcerated fathers may be saddled with growing debt, custodial parents, too, are often struggling to make ends meet: More than 30 percent of all custodial mothers’ earnings leave them below the poverty line, according to a 2013 census report. For parents living below the poverty line who receive full child support payments, that income accounted for roughly 70 percent of their mean annual personal income. Given that need, leniency for fathers who are paying either none or very little of what they owe to a custodial parent might seem problematic for mothers.

But according to Carolyn Heinrich, a professor and expert in social welfare policy at Vanderbilt University, reducing the amount an indebted parent owes increases the odds that the custodial parent will receive any money.

“You are more likely to drive these guys underground to the informal job sector by slapping large amounts of debt on them when there’s no way that they can pay,” Heinrich told TakePart.

Roughly 70 percent of uncollected child support debt is owed by parents who earn less than $10,000 a year, according to the Urban Institute. Coupled with other debts accrued in or out of prison, along with chronic unemployment and poverty, even reduced payments can prove unmanageable.

Heinrich was coleader of a pilot program in Wisconsin called Families Forward that studied how debt burdens influence child support payment. Participants in the program all had significant child support debts and were provided with partial, gradual debt forgiveness of past dues owed to the custodial parent if they consistently made payments toward current child support dues.

“We found that if we gave them a credit toward their debt balance, it incentivized them to become payers again—which is what the custodial parents wanted,” said Heinrich. Many of the men she worked with in the program had so much debt when they entered that they had “just given up” on paying anything at all. By working with them and negotiating with the custodial parents, Families Forward helped both parents move forward and support their child and turned non-payers into payers again.

The administration’s new rule, first proposed alongside a broader set of child support policy modifications in 2014, immediately attracted criticism from Republican legislators, who argued that such changes should be made legislatively rather than handed down from Washington without debate.

“Republicans in the [U.S. House of Representatives] went completely berserk,” Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution told TakePart. Haskins, a Republican, is a former member of the House Means and Ways Committee.

Haskins says less punitive penalties for non-payment or underpayment may be a mistake. He said the new rule’s leniency shifts child support programs “away from strong enforcement.... I like almost everything [the administration] did, but...they just went too far,” said Haskins.

The strong enforcement tactics Haskins refers to have grown increasingly contentious in recent years. For those who can’t make child support payments, the threat of imprisonment looms large. The cycle of incarceration created by such debts was tragically illustrated in 2015 when Walter Scott, a South Carolina father, was fatally shot in the back by a police officer. Scott was pulled over for a broken taillight but owed more than $18,000 in child support arrears—a debt he had previously been jailed for. Following his death, his family speculated that he ran from the police to avoid being incarcerated again, according to The Post and Courier.

Though advocates like Boggess see the rule change as an important step toward reducing the crippling debt parents often face after prison, it also sheds light on broader problems with child support policy, which fall hardest on low-income families.

“There are so many things in the child support system that need to be reconsidered given the way it’s impacting the very poorest families,” Boggess told TakePart. “This change is very meaningful, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”